IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Greg Ellis talks 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' and 'Star Trek 2'

Wednesday, 19 October 2011 13:03 Written by  Jami Philbrick
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IAR EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Greg Ellis talks 'Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides' and 'Star Trek 2'

You might not know him by name, but you would definitely recognize actor Greg Ellis if you saw his face. Ellis has appeared on dozens of popular television shows such as X-Files, Nip/Tuck, Trust Me, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and season three of 24 as biological weapons dealer Michael Amador. He’s also had roles in several successful feature films including the Academy Award-winning Titanic, Beowulf, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and J.J. AbramsStar Trek where the actor had the honor of being the new franchise’s first official “red shirt” (a stock character who dies soon after being introduced). But Ellis is best known for his role as Lieutenant Theodore Groves in the Pirates of the Caribbean series, including last summer’s mega-hit Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, which is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.

Ellis first played Groves in the original Pirates movie, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, and while he did not appear in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, he did return to the series for the third chapter, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End. But the actor’s largest role in the series came with the most recent edition to the franchise, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. In the film, Groves is promoted to Lieutenant Commander while working with Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush) aboard the H.M.S. Providence to find the Fountain of Youth. He aids Barbossa and Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) on their quest to find the Fountain and claims it for the British Empire before ultimately battling Blackbeard (Ian McShane) and the Spaniards.

I recently had a chance to speak with actor Greg Ellis about Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. The actor spoke candidly with me about the film, his character’s evolution, playing sidekick to Geoffrey Rush’s Barbossa, the differences between working with the film’s director Rob Marshall and former Pirates director Gore Verbinski, his reaction the first time he saw Johnny Depp play Jack Sparrow, playing the first “red shirt” in Star Trek, and the loophole that J.J. Abrams has come up with so that Ellis can possibly appear in Star Trek 2.

Here is what he had to say:

To begin with, your character made his first Pirates of the Caribbean appearance in The Curse of the Black Pearl and then did not appear again until At World’s End, were you surprised when you were asked to return to the franchise for the third film?

Greg Ellis: I was but it was great. I was filming down at FOX actually, a show called The Closer. I got a call from my agent saying they wanted to fly me down to the Caribbean I think the following day. So I had to make sure that I could get clearance from FOX to fly down there and finish my work on the TV show I was doing and I got that and literally twenty-four hours later I was back on the ship.

Then you returned to the franchise again for the fourth film, Stranger Tides, which is certainly the largest part you've had in this series. Was it exciting to have a chance to explore your character once again but now with an expanded role?

Ellis: It was great. I remember I saw a script and I think it was an early draft of the script, but I met a very early demise at the hands of I think it was a mermaid maybe attacking our ship. It went down and I got dragged deep into the water and then just appeared on the beach. Just when you thought Groves was fine, the rope that was tied around my leg snagged and dragged me into the ocean. I thought it's a really cool way, if Groves is going to go, that's a really cool way to do it. It was just that scene really, that scene and maybe one of the earlier scenes, and then after a rewrite, I think the notion was to keep Groves with Barbossa. The King had maybe said to Groves and Gillette (Damian O’Hare), “Keep an eye on him even though he's working for me, we don't trust him. You go with him the whole way.” That's really what it was, Groves and Gillette traveling with Barbossa to keep an eye him for the king.

The film has a very interesting twist, having Barbossa work for the King rather than being a pirate. What was your opinion when you found out that the filmmakers were taking the character in that direction, and since most of your scenes were opposite Geoffrey Rush, what was it like working with him on the film?

Ellis: I think it was very clever to switch Barbossa onto to the other side. I’ve always said that I'd love to see Groves as a pirate one day and maybe have him switch sides. Switching Geoffrey, also giving him one leg, anytime you give a great actor like that those kinds of fun challenges, they're going to lap them up as he did. He loved it. I've worked with him before and he's fantastic to work with. He can find interesting moments, different colors, layers, and choices in the simplest of scenes. I think that's what makes him a really great and interesting actor to watch. It’s not just about learning the lines but it’s about being fit to proceed, finding deeper levels to the character, the scene and also other characters within the scene. Geoffrey would find moments with actors that didn't even have lines in the scene just to make it more interesting you know? Not only for them but also for him, to keep the energy fresh and to keep it crackling along.

Was there a lot of improvising like that done on the set?

Ellis: Not so much improvising because I mean we prepared so well. I think when you've done a few movies in a franchise you’re sort of used to it. There's always a short hand with certain people that you work with. We had some rehearsals with Rob Marshall before we worked, which was very valuable because it saved some time with blocking when we got onto set. Clearly he got some amazing locations and we got to go on a real ship but there is not a lot of space for all the crew and the cast. So anything that saves you time like that is handy. I think with the script already in a good place by the time we were ready to film, and with the actors knowing the lines and having rehearsed the blocking, then when we came to set there might be a suggestion from someone. But also when we were on location filming (screenwriter) Terry Rossio would be around. You could go to him and make a suggestion, or you could go to Rob and there was a great channel of communication that would be open to you to make those suggestions before you go on set. So there wasn't necessarily the need to improvise. Of course anytime you've got such great actors as Johnny Depp, Ian McShane and Geoffrey Rush on set, there's going to be moments where there may be the odd bit of improvising, but for the most part I don't think it was too much on this movie.

I know it's hard to compare, but could you talk about some of the differences and maybe some of the similarities between working with Rob Marshall on this film and working with Gore Verbinski on the previous Pirates movies?

Ellis: Well they're both very different, but equally magical in their own way. Both of them are meticulous planners. Gore almost used the camera as an extra character, it was like he would want the camera to be moving and he was very creative with the camera. With Rob, what he created visually in terms of what he was seeing were some very beautiful images. Remember this was the first Pirates film shot in 3D. The first time I put the 3D glasses on, I went to set for playback to watch and it just amazing to see. So they are both very different amazing directors and great, great guys both of them.

As an actor, do you get a chance to do a lot of different takes with Rob, or is he very specific on what he wants and you need to nail it in one or two takes?

Ellis: The amount of takes we had with Rob is similar to the amount we had with Gore. I remember on the third Pirates movie when I flew down to the Caribbean, I had a scene with actor Tom Holland. It was after a battle when the ship's mast comes down and I did the first take. Then Gore came over and said, “Ok, the imaginary mast that we're going to do in CG is going to come down slower, and shutter a little bit when it hits the water. When he hits you with the lines, flinch for a moment almost like you forgot that he’s there, then when you look off you forget that he's there, and then it's back to order for the protocol when you leave, got it? Yeah, okay, let's go again!” And those are the kinds of things that they'll throw at you very quickly, and you’ve got to be able to take it and do it the next day. Whereas I think Rob maybe was a little slower in terms of between the takes. But also I think with Pirates 4, it was more of a controlled environment. Pirates 2 and Pirates 3 was mammoth, I mean it was over a year plus of filming. So that's a monumental task to pull off that amount of filming in those many days, and to do two movies back to back. So I think there was a sense more on Pirates 2 and Pirates 3 of being more urgency whilst filming.

Obviously, before this film Rob Marshall was best known for directing musicals, were you surprised that he was chosen to direct the film or did you know that he was the right man for the job?

Ellis: I thought it was a great choice. We joked around for a while that we would turn it into Pirates 4: the Musical. I think everyone was interested to see who they would choose to direct because until then Pirates was Gore, that's all we've known and experienced. Rob was just a consummate professional, so creative, exceedingly talented and absolute delightful as a human being to work with.

When you were making the original film, what was your initial reaction the first time you saw how Johnny Depp was going to play the role of Jack Sparrow? At the time it was a very surprising and daring performance, were you surprised by his unique interpretation of the character?

Ellis: Yeah in a very pleasant way, I think I remember chuckling inside when I first heard him speak. That was the best kind of read-through to have for the first movie; it was in the Viper Room. The actors gathered around a big long table in the center, and then around the outside was Jerry Bruckheimer, people from his company, and Disney as well. It was great to see these characters just come to life. I remember hearing Johnny speak for the first time, and Geoffrey who was sitting opposite me. It was great to hear Barbossa come to life. Then Kevin McNally (Gibbs) had been up all night drinking rum to get into character … no, I'm just kidding. We had a lot of English actors as well, and many of them had just stepped off a plane and then joined us in the read-through. So we were on the Sunset Strip at the Viper Room and no one quite knew. No one knew back then just how good it was going to be, or if indeed the movie was going to be good at all. There was a sense of excitement, but also a bit of, “How's this going to be? Is this going to work?” I think it has though.

Have you been surprised by the overall juggernaut success of the franchise?

Ellis: I've got to be honest, I think that summer Terminator 3 was coming out and I don't think many people gave Pirates a lot of hope. It was, "Oh, it's a pirate movie. We'll see … the last one wasn't that great, Cutthroat Island.” So there was a sense that the expectation bar was a little bit lower. I think everyone who worked on the movie clearly knew what we had, but you still don't know whether the box office will be good, or whether people are actually going to see it. Thankfully they did, a lot of them did.

Finally, I wanted to ask about your appearance in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek. Were you a fan or aware of the Star Trek mythology before you did the film and if so, what was your reaction when you first saw your red costume and realized your character’s doomed future?

Ellis: The answer to the first question is no. I had done the last two episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine so I had a quick education about Vulcans, Klingons and all these different races of beings from different planets, but I had no notion of the “red shirt.” Originally it looked like I was going to be playing a Romulan and then I got a call from my agent and I spoke to my friend Zoë Saldana who was in the Pirates movies. She said, “Oh no, I think J.J. wants you to do play the Chief Engineer. He is the first engineer to the Enterprise, which is really cool but even cooler … he's the red shirt!” So I said, okay, he wears a red shirt, what's so special about that? Then I found out what's so special about the red shirt.

To be the first “red shirt” in this new franchise is kind of a nice distinction to have in the mythos of the Star Trek universe, isn’t it?

Ellis: Yes and I may not be the last. Apparently Olsen had a brother, that's what I was informed of.

Really? He had a twin brother? Is it possible that you could play him in the sequel?

Ellis: I joked with J.J. at the premiere and he said, "Olsen has a brother, you know the Olsen twins." I laughed and he said, “No, but seriously wouldn't that be fun if Olsen did have a brother but he wasn't wearing a red shirt?” Then he told me a few ideas and I said, yeah, that would be fun.

So do you think there is still a role for you as an actor in the future of the franchise? Do you think you’ll be a part of Star Trek 2?

Ellis: Who knows? That's up to all the folks.

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides is available now on Blu-ray and DVD.

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